Reducing Risks with Retreats

Sustainable travel and a new wellness paradigm.

Retreat abroad in water

The tourism industry is inherently vulnerable to external events – natural disasters, political instability, extreme weather, terrorist attacks and, of course, pandemics. All of which have a catastrophic effect on tourist arrivals. No matter how well laid your marketing plans may be; air travel restrictions, travel advisories, quarantines and public health warnings can transform a prized destination from a tourist paradise to a literal desert island. The truth is that tourism is an industry full of black swans.

At Nomadic Resorts we have first-hand experience of the phenomenon. Our team has often worked on remote projects in risky, ‘exotic’ locations and inevitably we have had our fair share of scrapes and close calls. My first major crunch came only a month after landing my ‘dream’ job at Soneva Gili in the Maldives. The 2004 Tsunami swept over the island causing huge damage to the jetties, villas and infrastructure. Within hours a string of high-profile guests had left the island and tourists abandoned the entire geographic region for months. Paradise postponed.

In 2009 we got a taste of a different form of chaos while building the tented camp at Soneva Kiri in Eastern Thailand. The country went through a prolonged period of civil unrest during which the ‘red shirts’ and the ‘yellow shirts’ struggled to take political power. Initially the effects were relatively insignificant but as the civil unrest deepened, we found ourselves in the crossfire – when the Bangkok airport was blocked by protestors in 2008, tourist arrivals in Thailand came to a halt.

In 2019 disaster struck once again as the Sri Lankan Easter bombings transformed the country’s tourism sector. A destination that had been touted as the ‘place to go’ by the travel press took a big hit as travel advisories came into effect across the world. The occupancy rate of our project Wild Coast Tented Lodge plummeted for months despite having been voted the best new resort in Asia in that same year at the Ahead Awards.

As you can see from the examples above, tourism has always been subject to curve balls, but historically the industry has tended to bounce back fairly rapidly. In the current coronavirus context, it may be time to start re-considering how the sector evaluates risk and sustainability going forward. After years of growth, could the crisis be an environmental wake-up call and a catalyst for a more sustainable approach to travel?

Coronavirus presents unique challenges over the coming months but within the current disaster there may be some useful lessons to improve the resilience of the hospitality industry and opportunities to develop new sustainable products and services catering to a changing notion of lodging and wellness.

Soneva Kiri Tented suite
Soneva Kiri Tented suite

Hygiene and wellness
In response to the various disasters the team has endured over the years, Nomadic Resorts has spent a decade developing a new modular approach to building sustainable, tented camps, retreats and resorts.

Right back in 2009, we noted that the environmental impact of new resort developments on greenfield sites depended on the site protection policy, material selection, the number of workers on site and the speed of construction. Using tensile membrane technology, prefabricated building solutions, mobile low-carbon energy sources and containerised clean infrastructure, we believe that we can build tented camps in remote, isolated locations that offer a similar level of comfort to a traditional luxury resort with a much smaller environmental footprint.

Now, in a radically changing commercial context, we need to ask ourselves whether it is possible to adapt our concept to changing expectations relating to hygiene and wellness. Can the model be adapted to create refuges where our guests can escape chaotic, urban environments to recuperate in a safe, hygienic environment?

To answer this question we realised that firstly the glamping/tented camp sector has some significant advantages over traditional hospitality models when faced with these kinds of crises – glampsites and camps are typically smaller, relatively remote from urban centres, have fewer staff, simpler operational processes and offer fresh air and personal space as key attractions. This essentially means that the environment is typically much easier to control than large scale, complex hotel developments, branded resorts or cruise ships. Maybe small is indeed beautiful.

We began to explore how it might be possible to create intimate wellness retreats that could be designed to reduce or eliminate the risk of contagion without compromising guest comfort, sustainability, aesthetics or a sense of community.

We came up with the following guidelines that may assist operators and developers in mitigating the risks:

1. Create a booking process that provides you with basic information about the health status of potential guests – in the same way that a pre-treatment spa questionnaire asks whether you have had recent surgery or suffer from allergies, we believe that a reservation process which requests some fundamental health information from potential guests could allow the camp to filter out guests who have been recently diagnosed with illness, understand their clientele better and provide guests with a better level of personalised service.

2. Monitor the health status of staff and key suppliers on a regular basis and train staff to take personal responsibility for their personal health status to ensure that they recognise the fundamental risk posed by infectious diseases.

3. Respect and implement proven health and safety methodologies such as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) for food and beverage operations and ensure appropriate facilities are in place for washing hands. No-touch solutions help minimise contact and reduce the transmission of germs.

Wild Coast tented lodge
Wild Coast tented lodge

4. Improve processes in housekeeping and ensure high usage items such as remote controls, light switches, drinking glasses and headboards should be cleaned thoroughly to limit the spread of bacteria.

5. Maintain laundry equipment, insist on high personal hygiene in the laundry department and ensure staff have freshly washed uniforms regularly.

6. Insist that air conditioning and heating systems are carefully maintained and that filters are regularly cleaned.

7. Adapt the design of facilities to reduce the risk of infection amongst staff and guests by adopting some of the strategies that are used in the interior design of healthcare facilities – careful selection of finishes, the use of photoactive pigments and indigo LED lighting can all reduce risks.

Once a vaccine is found for COVID-19 and the current pandemic calms, the industry will get back on track and international tourism arrivals will, in all probability, start to rise once again. But we should all try and learn from the current situation so that we can improve the resilience of our operations during the inevitable troughs and peaks the industry will continue to encounter in an increasingly hot, flat and crowded world.


Louis ThompsonLouis Thompson is CEO of Nomadic Resorts, an interdisciplinary design and project development company servicing the hospitality industry with offices in the Netherlands, Sri Lanka, Mauritius and South Africa. Using a holistic approach, Nomadic creates sustainable resorts, tented camps, lodges and residential projects that reflect a true sense of place and fit organically into their natural surroundings. Its ethos is that designs should serve as a bridge to connect nature, culture and people.
The team specialises in sustainable architecture, contemporary bamboo construction, treetop living concepts, as well as tent design, engineering, manufacture and installation. Over the last 15 years Louis has worked on some of the leading luxury tented camps across the world including Wild Coast Tented Lodge in the south of Sri Lanka, Soneva Kiri on Ko Kut island in Thailand and Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp in Namibia. The projects have won multiple awards in both the design and hospitality sectors including the 2019 Ahead award for the best resort in Asia and the 2018 UNESCO Prix Versailles for the best restaurant design in the world.

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